Communities of practice

I appreciated Wenger’s basic definitions of a community of practice: “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Wenger explains that a community of practice (COP) is not just a club or network, but is a group with a “shared domain of interest,” to which all group members are committed. In addition, group members “build relationships that allow them to learn from each other,” this is the “community” in COP. Finally, group members are practitioners. As practitioners, within the COP they develop a shared practice, a “…repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, etc. (Wenger, 2006).”

It helped as well to read about how the changing and expanding nature of adult education and life long learning has pushed Edwards (2006) (and others) to expand the definitions and conceptualization of learning contexts. Edwards suggests that some current conceptualizations are “binary” and limiting – informal/formal, everyday practices/educational institutions – and imply that context is a “container” into which learning fits (pp. 3-5). Edwards suggests that we should instead “…focus on relational polycontextualising practices in our discourses of lifelong learning (p. 5),” because it is within these relationships that cognition and learning often lie (not within one individual alone). The article ends with a list of provocative questions; I particularly appreciated the following, “If the boundaries of contextualisations for pedagogy are becoming more porous, what forms of teaching emerge and what is their impact on learners and learning something? (Edwards, 2006, p. 9).” Given the recent expansions in what we consider to be learning environments and events (online, blended, COPs, MOOCs, to name a few), and the  expanding platforms and modalities, this is an important question.

I found it interesting that the two Conrad studies involved quite small study samples, particularly the sample of only 10 participants described in “From Community to Community of Practice.” Despite the small size, some of the study findings do seem relevant and resonate with my own experiences. In the 10-participant study, Conrad (2008) notes that despite a certain level of support for learning within participants’ workplaces, participants’ learning (even when directly relevant to their work) did not appear to impact the workplace or work practices significantly: “… learners’ learning experiences did not appear to transform the workplace in meaningful ways. Tolerance and respect were the norm. The encouragement that was reported by a minority of participants took the form of logistical adjustments in the workplace… (p.16).” She also notes, “Although some workplaces encouraged learning more tangibly than others, there was no indication from learners or their workplace colleagues of the existence of a subsequent widespread or renewed energy within the organization. Sharing the enthusiasm of learning occurred in limited ways, often with colleagues who had also participated in online courses (p. 18).”

My experience has been that, even with courses or workshops required or specifically suggested by my employer (which the courses in the study were not), using my learning to create post-course impact on my workplace and work practices is quite challenging. In my most recent job, we were always swamped, and leaders were used to doing things certain ways. I could implement new practices within my team but having a wider impact was almost impossible (even though it was needed, for example in the area of project management). We’ve been learning about necessities and drivers in 624 – the structures, practices, and agreements that must be in place in order to facilitate 1) transfer of new skills and learning to the workplace; and 2) positive impact on the work resulting from the transfer. Examples: mentoring or coaching, changes to job structures or job descriptions, adjustments to projects, etc. If these are not in place, transfer and impact will be limited and short-lived.

In her second study, Conrad (2005) found that in the online learning cohort studied, learners themselves took on a fair amount of responsibility for creating and constructing their online community. She also notes that, while the community “survived” a poor instructor, instructors played a key role in constructing community: “…good instructors created community, poor instructors didn’t. These learners defined good instructors as present, prompt, energetic, responsible, and knowledgeable… [they] gave appropriate feedback and demonstrated a level of passion for their teaching… (p. 12).” This has certainly been my experience in the UMB ID program. We are not one cohort taking all courses together, so the time we have to build community as learners is limited (Conrad notes in her 2005 study the value of time spent together to developing a solid online community). The instructor’s online presence, promptness, feedback, etc. in my courses to date has very much affected the sense of community that I feel. I’ve felt it 602, of course! Part of this is due to our weekly communication and online sessions with the instructor. They go a long way towards helping me feel that 602 is a learning community.

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Communities of practice

Experiential learning

What I appreciated most about this week’s readings and videos was the opportunity to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of instructional methods and strategies that I have used for years as an adult educator and trainer. According to the five perspectives on experiential learning outlined in Merriam, Caffarella,and Baumgartner (2007), much of my practice has drawn on the constructivist and situative perspectives (p. 160). In the constructivist approach, “people have concrete experiences; they reflect on them and construct new knowledge as a result of these reflections (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).” In the situative approach, learning happens not in the learner’s head but in the situation itself, for example in communities of practice (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).

As an instructional designer, teacher, and facilitator, I have learned that eliciting learners’ experiences and helping them to reflect, build on, and learn from them leads to effective learning – the constructivist approach. One recent example from a training that I designed for village health workers (VHWs) in Africa and Haiti: before VHWs learned the details of weighing and measuring babies, detecting cases of severe malnutrition in children, and referring children to the clinic, they discussed their experiences with nutrition and malnutrition in the communities where they worked, their thoughts on its causes, and how they might approach families based on previous experiences. The facilitator’s role here was to “…encourage learners to discuss and reflect on concrete experiences in an open and trusting environment (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 169).”

I have also participated in a few communities of practice over the years, particularly when I was working as an adult ESOL and literacy instructor and program director. As the director of a team of teachers in a labor/management workplace education program, I created our own community of practice. We shared best practices, challenges, and materials in structured sessions during our team meetings. This is how we built some of our best work. In this practice we followed Kolb’s reflective cycle, described in this week’s video “The 3 minute Kolb.” We had concrete experiences (trying out particular strategies in the classroom), then we engaged in reflective observation during structured sharing sessions, then we engaged in abstract conceptualization about the strategies or methods, and finally we did “active experimentation” where we went back to the classroom to revise or try new methods. This was “reflection on action,” where practitioners “…consciously return to the experiences that we have had, reevaluate these experiences, decide what we could do differently, and then try out whatever we decided to do differently (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 175).”

Early in my career I was very influenced by Paulo Freire’s work, and it was helpful to learn in this week’s reading that his pedagogy falls in the “critical culltural perspective” within experiential learning (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 168), where learners critically examine problems and identify collective actions to address those problems and promote social change.As an ESOL and literacy teacher, I regularly tried to build problem-posing into my instruction, particularly when I worked at a labor/management education program. I appreciated reading about Mezirow this week as well. While I have studied and deliberately followed Friere’s pedagogy at times. I had not known about Mezirow until enrolling in the ID Program. I can see his influence in my teaching and instructional design, particularly in his emphasis on critical reflection: “…just having the experience is not enough. The learner must critically self-examine the assumptions and beliefs that have structured how the experience has been interpreted (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 134).” I have tried to build such critical examination into my work, particularly by asking “why” something is the way it is – digging down to causes and assumptions about the way things work (Freire promotes critical reflection as well, not just at the individual but the societal/systems level.)

I also appreciated the critiques of transformative learning. In particular: “Both Freire and Mezirow  have been criticized for romanticizing the social change process. Both educators start with the oppressed or the person trapped within a culturally induced dependency role, and both require these victims to liberate themselves, albeit with the help of the dialogic or transformative educator (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 154).” I have reflected on this myself over the years, even noting years ago that in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he sees learners somewhat as “blank slates” who have never before examined their reality critically and must be helped to do so. I also appreciated the question raised by Merriam et al. (2007), “…what right do adult educators have to tamper with the worldview (mental set, perspective, paradigm, or state of consciousness) of the learner?”  And “What is the educator’s responsibility for the action component of praxis? (p. 154).” I found that it made most sense to engage learners in problem-posing and identifying concrete action for change when I worked as an educator within organizations that had as their mandate social change and organizing. Educators working in settings without that type of “backing” must tread carefully. We must also be aware that learners may 1) have a more developed critical analysis that the instructor; and 2) may have no desire to engage in either personal or collective action leading to social (or personal) change.

I found the article “Impact of Experiential Learning on Cognitive Outcome in Technology and Engineering Teacher Preparation” a useful example of research on the effectiveness of experimental learning, in particular the research finding that learners benefited from organized experiential learning, and that “…no independent active or experiential approach is singularly superior, and in fact the approach could be significantly enhanced by instructional styles and learner receptiveness to teacher personality (Ernst, 2013, p. 39).” It is always interesting to see how the ideal comes real and is measured in some concrete way!

Experiential learning

Constructivism highlights

I appreciated reading Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) this week. They made many good points about today’s social context for learning. I found a few points particularly relevant to my practice. First, Merriam, et al. highlight some researchers’ suggestions to “…confront ‘the totalizing gaze of the ideology of globalization as an inevitable force of nature because it negates the centrality of human agency (p. 15).” Second, they emphasize, “to survive in the global economy, an organization needs to evolve into a ‘learning organization’ whereby new and expansive patterns are permitted, allowing employees to learn individually and collectively (p. 16).” I agree that globalization and its dominant players can (and do) steamroll over large sections of the world’s populations, and that as educators we have a role in promoting “human agency” at individual and collective levels, by promoting not just acquisition of concrete skills but the development of critical thinking, learning to learn, examination of the status quo, and the building of “learning organizations.” At my most recent job (a non-profit global health organization) we were keenly aware of the need to become a true learning organization, and were taking steps toward building learning into organizational structures when I left. For example, we were exploring a supportive supervision/supervisor as coach model, with ongoing evaluation as part of the model as well.

I found this week’s articles a bit of a plunge into deep waters, particularly the Stetsenko and Packer articles. Even though a 602 colleague and I are doing the constructivism presentation this week and have done some extra research on constructivism in preparation, when reading this week’s articles I felt that I had jumped from the shallow “introduction” end of the pool straight to the deep “in-depth analysis of variations on constructivist theory” end of the pool . However, I was able to glean some key points that help me to understand constructivism and its application a bit better.

First, I appreciated Karagiorgi and Symeou’s (2005) point that constructivist instructional strategies should support the development and negotiation of meaning by creating “…a rich context within which meaning can be negotiated, and ways of understanding can emerge (Hannafin et al., 1997)” (from Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005, p. 19). The authors name role-playing games, simulations, and case studies as examples of instructional strategies that can create this rich context. I have used such strategies myself as an adult educator and have experienced how they can help learners to construct new meaning together.

In his article “Is Vygotsky Relevant? Vygotsky’s Marxist Psychology (2008),” Packer describes Vygotsky’s view of a “new” psychology: “Vygotsky was extending a powerful line of analysis. Marxism had already provided the knowledge needed to control social organization and make a new kind of society. What was now needed—and now possible—was “the mastery of our own being”: the control of human psychological organization and the making of “the new man.” According to Vygotsky, the focus of the new general psychology would be “the laws . . . which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves.” Knowledge of these laws would make man “architect of his own fortune” (Hegel, 1812/1904, p. 271) (p. 16). Vygotsky even believed that this new psychology would bring about the “artificial creation of a new biological type” of human being. He emphasized the social nature of our consciousness, as a product of the interaction between a person and her/his environment (Packer, 2008, pp. 22-23). This helped me to understand the roots of cognitivists’ beliefs that knowledge is constructed together by learners (rather than received as an “input” from the outside). It was interesting to read about Vygotsky’s idealism and the belief that a “new psychology” could create a new type of human being (similar to Marxist beliefs about creating a new society). While that may not be possible, it seems that Vygotsky has indeed influenced and moved psychology and learning into new realms (and away from behaviorism).

The Stetsenko and Arievitch (1997) article was the steepest climb for me. I feel that more exposure to the theorists mentioned in the article would allow me to grasp the authors’ arguments more fully. However, I did take away the following: “The metaphor “child as Robinson Crusoe” is replaced by the notion of shared activities, co-operation between the individual and other people. The focus is on the inherently contextualized nature of any developmental process, and hence, on the embeddedness of human development in culturally and historically defined contexts. This is an assumption that stresses social inter-action as playing a decisive role in the production of mental capacities, which are unavailable to the isolated individual. This assumption emphasizes mutuality, cooperation, communication, and social embeddedness of the self and of the individual’s development (p. 162).” Also, in describing a few main lines of social constructivist research, Stetsenko and Arievitch point out, “Rogoff conceptualized learning that results in the child’s cognitive development as the process of the child’s guided participation in culturally organized activity with a more skilled partner. The central idea is that children’s cognitive development is inseparable from their social environment (p. 167).” While I cannot claim to fully understand the distinctions that Stetsenko and Arievitch detail, I appreciated these important reminders of the underlying constructivist belief that knowledge is built through shared activity and social interaction, and embedded in human beings’ fundamentally social nature and the social context in which they live.

Constructivism highlights